Florida wildlife officials are investigating a Northwest Florida festival after an animal rights group complained. The 45-year-old Wausau Possum Festival has been a longtime favorite campaign stop for politicians.
The tiny Panhandle town of Wausau bills itself as the “Possum Capital of the United States.” Its annual Possum Festival includes beauty pageants, a live-possum auction and, most years, politicians.
In a YouTube video from this summer’s festival, Republican Congressman Steve Southerland (FL-2) says, “In just a little while I’m gonna hold a possum, so I wouldn’t say that’s the best part, but to be here, to see the people, to hug necks and shake hands, to eat some good food and run the parade route, that was fun.”
Southerland is hardly the first candidate to put the Possum Fest on his schedule. Veteran Tallahassee political reporter Bill Cotterell says it’s one of those small-town events that help show you’re “real folks.”
Cotterell says, “You want to show proper respect for these little counties like Calhoun and Liberty and Washington. And you want to be at the Chipley rodeo at Bonifay. You want to be at the oyster festival at Apalachicola. You don’t want to act like you’re doing your whole campaign out of a TV studio in Tampa.”
Southerland’s Democratic challenger, Gwen Graham, also partook in this year’s fest. In another video, she says, “There is nothing better than the Possum Festival, and, I tell you what, the fact that I actually won a possum with eight babies inside, so I actually got nine possums!”
Politicians often participate in the fest’s traditional possum auction. Winners mount the stage, where they’re handed a live wild possum by its tail and told to shake it up and down. Florida Gov. Rick Scott did it last year. Proceeds go toward purchasing equipment for a volunteer fire department and funding scholarships for Washington County kids.
But the auction has organizers in potentially hot water with state wildlife officials. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, known as PETA, have complained the festival violates state and federal animal-exhibition laws.
PETA lawyer Martina Bernstein says, “There was no application and there were no permits or licenses granted. And it is clear when you see the way these animals are treated that they would not have qualified for a license under these circumstances.”
Bernstein says grabbing opossums by their tails is animal abuse. And it turns out, opossum veterinarians agree—and yes, there are vets who work with injured opossums.
“They’re one of my favorite animals to work with in fact,” says Lisa Mason, a longtime vet at FloridaWild Veterinary Hospital in Volusia County.
I asked her about PETA’s claims: Can holding an opossum by its tail cause pain and some really serious injuries?
“Absolutely. Absolutely, definitely,” she says. “And actually I have seen a possum come in for rehabilitation who had that happen to him, and he had become paralyzed in his back end because of it.”
Mason says other possible injuries include spinal cord damage and intestinal failure. She adds it’s a myth that adult opossums hang by their tails in the wild. She says holding one by its tail is just as bad as holding a cat by its tail. But wait a second: In the videos, the opossums don’t scream out like a cat would. How bad can it really be?
“With an opossum, they basically shut down, so they’re not going to fight back from that,” she says. “They’re not going to show any signs of pain, which actually makes them a little bit of a challenge to work with in veterinary medicine.”
Colloquially, that’s known as “playing dead.” It’s what the marsupial does when it’s scared—which makes the optics of all those politicians holding them and shaking them a little awkward.
If wildlife officials intervene, it could mean the Possum Capital of the United States might have to hold festivals without live possums. But PETA’s Martina Bernstein says there are alternatives.
“There’s a possum drop in Georgia, for example, where no live opossum is used. They use a taxidermied opossum, and it’s a wildly popular event,” she says.
When Possum Fest organizers were reached by phone, they declined to do a taped interview for this story. Committee chairman Joe Tharpe did say, however, he was worried about what would happen to the scholarships if there are no possums.